In a way, that kind of says it all. Better response times help everybody – definitely customers, but also the organization. The quicker an equipment or infrastructure problem in the field is addressed, the sooner that asset can support revenue. Plus, increasing the speed of dispatch, diagnostics and issue resolution gets the technician (or team) to the next call sooner, which means more calls can be handled per day. But response time improvements don’t happen because you or your workers try harder. They happen because predictive analytics and automated dispatch get the trucks rolling sooner, geographic information systems (GIS) data directs technicians to the right asset immediately upon arrival at their destination and machine learning combined with virtual reality (VR) or virtual collaboration tools increase the first time fix rate (FTFR).
Of course, budget is always an issue, and the term “budget” can mean capital expenses, operating expenses or both. Often money in one bucket cannot be used for the other, which tends to constrain IT professionals’ options when building a technology toolset for field workers. This sometimes leads to less-than-optimum decisions, such as leasing equipment (operating budget) because there aren’t sufficient funds to purchase equipment (capital budget). So, IT needs to work as partners with their finance department so that overall minimum expenditures are evaluated in total when trying to maximize technology budgets. After all, investing in the right technology tools is the key to maximizing labor resources (which are almost always far more costly than their tools), improving inventory utilization and ensuring proper equipment installation and preventative maintenance actions are being taken to extend the life of equipment and eliminate unnecessary truck rolls to fix or replace failing equipment. (More on that in a minute.)
I realize the irony in my recommendation considering that study respondents indicated that implementing and adapting to new technologies is a top issue. However, in my view, this only really becomes an issue if new tools – whether they are mobile devices, GIS apps, augmented reality (AR) apps or wearable technologies – work well. Some service organizations think their workers are resistant to all new technology. On the contrary, workers are opposed to poorly executed technology but, in fact, embrace better tools. When talking with workers who complain about a mobile device or app, what companies often realize is that field technicians actually appreciate the benefits that mobility solutions can bring to their jobs and simply need those tools to be better implemented. Their reported issues – the device fails to stay connected in remote areas, can’t be seen in the sun, knocks me off the VPN when I swap batteries, etc. – are typically fixable by deploying the right technology tools for the job. To be honest, I’ve never heard one worker say “we should go back to the old way.” Yet, for some reason, many telcos and service providers are hesitant to adopt new technologies, even if they are just better-suited versions of the same technologies already used today – such as tablets, scanners or handheld mobile computers – and even if it’s riskier not to do so. That’s interesting to me.
New Isn’t Always Better…Or Is It?
When I first read through the results of our “Future of Field Operations” study, I was reminded of the comments sometimes heard in field service organizations that believe that new features aren’t really needed. They claim that field-based workers are able to get their jobs done with the mobile devices and feature sets they currently use and that continuous innovation isn’t necessary to keeping customers happy and their workers productive. So, why spend the time engineering a better keyboard, optimizing the touch screen, finding a better antenna placement or perfecting the functional form?
(Zebra does not feel this way by any means as Chief Technology Officer, Tom Bianculli, discussed in detail in this recent podcast. We are always looking for ways to improve our technology solutions so that front-line workers can do their jobs better, faster and more efficiently. Hear what he had to say on this subject.)
In a way, this is like the current controversy about advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) now available in cars and the further system advances expected to become more mainstream over the next few years – things like Lane Departure Warning, Active Blind Spot Detection, Automatic Emergency Stopping and more.
Simply put, the vast majority of drivers think they are better than average drivers (which is, of course, statistically impossible) and therefore not in need of these ADAS tools. Of course, some drivers are better than others, but all drivers make mistakes. Many times, those mistakes don’t result in accidents thanks to the actions of another attentive driver or even sheer luck. However, we shouldn’t be relying on others (or luck) to mitigate accidents. If the technology is available to make us better drivers, we should leverage it – just as telcos should leverage new and better technology as it becomes available to mitigate service and infrastructure issues. Whether or not we expect new technologies to help, they do help and are in fact often needed, especially when it comes to mobile technology for field workers.
Though often unstated in marketing and sales materials, the benefits of most new technology features are their ability to deliver a higher level of abstraction, which is a fancy way to say that they free up people to solve higher level problems, which they continue to be (still) better at than machines.
Consider the first computer programmers, who had to “print” by writing specific lines of code to move the printer carriage to the far left, space to the intended indent and then send each character to the printer while counting so it knew when to issue a carriage return. Today, it is written PRINT (“Text to print”), and the operating system’s print driver does all the rest. That “new capability” increased the level of abstraction, enabling programmers to focus on more important, higher level things. Similarly, the introduction of computer- aided dispatch (CAD) meant that field service technicians no longer had to look at maps or enter an address into a navigation system to know how to get to the customer or asset location. The CAD system can efficiently direct them to their next call, which empowers them to arrive sooner and with more information about the work order so that they can immediately get on with the business of “diagnosis and repair”. Could service providers have stuck with more traditional (i.e. manual) dispatch and routing systems to save money or avoid “complicating” the workflow? Sure. But, in the end, that simple action of driving to the right place at the right time and with the right tools would have remained much more complicated than it needed to be. New and better technology tools addressed pain points that maybe weren’t that evident at the time. The reward of embracing change – embracing new technology – far outweighed the risk of perceived adaptation challenges.
I think another reason why I was surprised to see new technology implementations as a top challenge by telcos is because they are among the many field service companies that have experienced first-hand just how effective in-field mobility tools can be in driving greater connectivity, productivity and efficiency.
Perhaps that’s why they are hesitant to modernize their technology solutions? Because the currently-deployed devices are working so well?
On one hand, their current systems do work. On the other, what’s sufficient today will be obsolete eventually. So, continuous modernization/enhancements – or at least forward-thinking investments – are warranted.
Remember, the processes used to manage service providers’ field-based operations technically “worked” as needed back when most service calls were recorded on paper and most dispatches where done by frequent calls between the technician and the in-office dispatcher. However, the truth is that systems work better today thanks to commonly-deployed technology that uses CAD apps, online work tickets, digitalized service records and both automated and field-based payment options.
Therefore, I challenge service providers to embrace technology modernization as enabling versus disruptive. When weighing the risks versus rewards of implementing new technologies, ask yourself two questions:
1. What types of new/better technology tools could potentially improve the productivity of my workers today, assuming they weren’t too complicated to deploy or use?
2. What types of technology-delivered workflow capabilities might prove beneficial tomorrow, assuming I had the resources to implement them and, again, they weren’t too complicated to integrate or use?